The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

Chapter 32

The Tiger

Alas! why these things and not others!

BEAUMARCHAIS

An English traveller relates how he lived upon intimate terms with a tiger; he had reared it and used to play with it, but always kept a loaded pistol on the table.

Julien abandoned himself to the full force of his happiness only at those moments when Mathilde could not read the expression of it in his eyes. He was punctilious in his performance of the duty of addressing a few harsh words to her from time to time.

When Mathilde’s meekness, which he observed with astonishment, and the intensity of her devotion came near to destroying all his self-control, he had the courage to leave her abruptly.

For the first time Mathilde was in love.

Life, which had always crawled for her at a snail’s pace, now flew.

As it was essential, nevertheless, that her pride should find some outlet, she sought to expose herself with temerity to all the risks that her love could make her run. It was Julien who showed prudence; and it was only when there was any question of danger that she did not comply with his wishes; but, submissive, and almost humble towards him, she showed all the more arrogance towards anyone else who came near her in the house, relatives and servants alike.

In the evenings in the drawing-room, she would summon Julien, and would hold long conversations with him in private.

Little Tanbeau took his place one evening beside them; she asked him to go to the library and fetch her the volume of Smollett which dealt with the Revolution of 1688; and as he seemed to hesitate: There is no need to hurry,’ she went on with an expression of insulting arrogance, which was balm to Julien’s spirit.

‘Did you notice the look in that little monster’s eyes?’ he asked her.

‘His uncle has done ten or twelve years of service in this drawing-room, otherwise I should have him shown the door this instant.’

Her behaviour towards MM. de Croisenois, de Luz, and the rest, perfectly polite in form, was scarcely less provoking in substance. Mathilde blamed herself severely for all the confidences she had made to Julien in the past, especially as she did not dare confess to him that she had exaggerated the almost wholly innocent marks of interest of which those gentlemen had been the object.

In spite of the most admirable resolutions, her womanly pride prevented her every day from saying to Julien: ‘It was because I was speaking to you that I found pleasure in the thought of my weakness in not withdrawing my hand when M. de Croisenois laid his hand on a marble table beside mine, and managed to touch it.’

Nowadays, whenever one of these gentlemen had spoken to her for a few moments, she found that she had a question to ask Julien, and this was a pretext for keeping him by her side.

She found that she was pregnant, and told the news joyfully to Julien.

‘Now will you doubt me? Is not this a guarantee? I am your wife for ever.’

This announcement filled Julien with profound astonishment. He was on the point of forgetting his principle of conduct. ‘How can I be deliberately cold and offensive to this poor girl who is ruining herself for me?’ Did she appear at all unwell, even on the days on which wisdom made her dread accents heard, he no longer found the courage to address to her one of those cruel speeches, so indispensable, in his experience, to the continuance of their love.

‘I mean to write to my father,’ Mathilde said to him one day; ‘he is more than a father to me; he is a friend; and so I should feel it unworthy of you and of myself to seek to deceive him, were it only for a moment.’

‘Great God! What are you going to do?’ said Julien in alarm.

‘My duty,’ she replied, her eyes sparkling with joy.

She felt herself to be more magnanimous than her lover.

‘But he will turn me from the house in disgrace!’

‘He is within his rights, we must respect them. I shall give you my arm, and we shall go out by the front door, in the full light of day.’

Julien in astonishment begged her to wait for a week.

‘I cannot,’ she replied, ‘the voice of honour speaks. I have seen what is my duty, I must obey, and at once.’

‘Very well! I order you to wait,’ said Julien at length. ‘Your honour is covered, I am your husband. This drastic step is going to alter both our positions. I also am within my rights. Today is Tuesday; next Tuesday is the day of the Duc de Retz’s party; that evening, when M. de La Mole comes home, the porter shall hand him the fatal letter . . . He thinks only of making you a Duchess, of that I am certain; think of his grief!’

‘Do you mean by that: think of his revenge?’

‘I may feel pity for my benefactor, distress at the thought of injuring him; but I do not and never shall fear any man.’

Mathilde submitted. Since she had told Julien of her condition, this was the first time that he had spoken to her with authority; never had he loved her so dearly. It was with gladness that the softer side of his heart seized the pretext of Mathilde’s condition to forgo the duty of saying a few cruel words. The idea of a confession to M. de La Mole disturbed him greatly. Was he going to be parted from Mathilde? And, however keen the distress with which she saw him go, a month after his departure would she give him a thought?

He felt almost as great a horror of the reproaches which the Marquis might justly heap upon him.

That evening, he admitted to Mathilde this second cause of his distress, and then, carried away by love, admitted the other also.

She changed colour.

‘Indeed,’ she said, ‘six months spent out of my company would be a grief to you!’

‘Immense, the only one in the world on which I look with terror.’

Mathilde was delighted. Julien had played his part with such thoroughness that he had succeeded in making her think that of the two she was the more in love.

The fatal Tuesday came. At midnight, on returning home, the Marquis found a letter with the form of address which indicated that he was to open it himself, and only when he was unobserved.

‘MY FATHER,

‘Every social tie that binds us is broken, there remain only the ties of nature. After my husband, you are and will ever be the dearest person in the world to me. My eyes fill with tears, I think of the distress that I am causing you, but, that my shame may not be made public, to give you time to deliberate and act, I have been unable to postpone any further the confession that I owe you. If your affection for me, which I know to be extreme, chooses to allow me a small pension, I shall go and settle myself where you please, in Switzerland, for instance, with my husband. His name is so obscure that no one will recognise your daughter in Madame Sorel, daughter-inlaw of a carpenter of Verrieres. There you have the name I have found it so hard to write. I dread, for Julien, your anger, apparently so righteous. I shall not be a Duchess, Father; but I knew it when I fell in love with him; for it was I that fell in love first, it was I who seduced him. I inherit from you a spirit too exalted to let my attention be arrested by what is or seems to me vulgar. It is in vain that with the idea of pleasing you I have thought of M. de Croisenois. Why did you place real merit before my eyes? You told me yourself on my return from Hyeres: “This young Sorel is the only person who amuses me”; the poor boy is as greatly distressed as myself, if it be possible, by the pain which this letter must cause you. I cannot prevent your being angry with me as a father; but care for me still as a friend.

‘Julien respected me. If he spoke to me now and again, it was solely because of his profound gratitude to you: for the natural pride of his character leads him never to reply save officially to anyone who is placed so far above him. He has a strong and inborn sense of the differences of social position. It was I, I admit, with a blush, to my best friend, and never shall such an admission be made to any other, it was I who one day in the garden pressed his arm.

‘In twenty-four hours from now, why should you be angry with him? My fault is irreparable. If you require it, I shall be the channel to convey to you the assurances of his profound respect and of his distress at displeasing you. You will not set eyes on him; but I shall go and join him wherever he may choose. It is his right, it is my duty, he is the father of my child. If in your generosity you are pleased to allow us six thousand francs upon which to live, I shall accept them with gratitude: otherwise, Julien intends to settle at Besancon where he will take up the profession of teacher of Latin and Literature. However low the degree from which he springs, I am certain that he will rise. With him, I have no fear of obscurity. If there be a Revolution, I am sure of a leading part for him. Could you say as much for any of those who have sought my hand? They have fine estates? I cannot find in that single circumstance a reason for admiration. My Julien would attain to a high position even under the present form of government, if he had a million and were protected by my father . . . ’

Mathilde, who knew that the Marquis was a man entirely governed by first impressions, had written eight pages.

‘What is to be done?’ Julien said to himself while M. de La Mole was reading this letter; ‘where do, first of all, my duty, secondly, my interest lie? The debt that I owe him is immense: I should have been, but for him, a rascally understrapper, and not rascal enough to be hated and persecuted by the rest. He has made me a man of the world. My necessary rascalities will be, first of all, rarer, and secondly, less ignoble. That is more than if he had given me a million. I owe to him this Cross and the record of so-called diplomatic services which have raised me above my rank.

‘If he were to take his pen to prescribe my conduct, what would he write?’

Julien was sharply interrupted by M. de La Mole’s old valet.

‘The Marquis wishes to see you this moment, dressed or undressed.’

The valet added in an undertone as they were side by side: ‘He is furious, beware.’

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30